The Civil War Day by Day

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The Civil War was fought in 10,000 places, from Valverde, New Mexico, and Tullahoma, Tennessee, to St. Albans, Vermont, and Fernandina on the Florida coast. More than 3 million Americans fought in it, and over 600,000 men, 2 percent of the population, died in it.

American homes became headquarters, American churches and schoolhouses sheltered the dying, and huge foraging armies swept across American farms and burned American towns. Americans slaughtered one another wholesale, right here in America in their own cornfields and peach orchards, along familiar roads and by waters with old American names.

In two days at Shiloh, on the banks of the Tennessee River, more American men fell than in all the previous American wars combined. At Cold Harbor, some 7,000 Americans fell in twenty minutes. Men who had never strayed twenty miles from their own front doors now found themselves soldiers in great armies, fighting epic battles hundreds of miles from home. They knew they were making history, and it was the greatest adventure of their lives.

The Civil War has been given many names: the War Between the States, the War Against Northern Aggression, the Second American Revolution, the Lost Cause, the War of the Rebellion, the Brothers’ War, the Late Unpleasantness. Walt Whitman called it the War of Attempted Secession. Confederate General Joseph Johnston called it the War Against the States. By whatever name, it was unquestionably the most important event in the life of the nation. It saw the end of slavery and the downfall of a southern planter aristocracy. It was the watershed of a new political and economic order, and the beginning of big industry, big business, big government. It was the first modern war and, for Americans, the costliest, yielding the most American fatalities and the greatest domestic suffering, spiritually and physically. It was the most horrible, necessary, intimate, acrimonious, mean-spirited, and heroic conflict the nation has ever known.

Inevitably, we grasp the war through such hyperbole. In so doing, we tend to blur the fact that real people lived through it and were changed by the event. One hundred eighty-five thousand black Americans fought to free their people. Fishermen and storekeepers from Deer Isle, Maine, served bravely and died miserably in strange places like Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Fredericksburg, Virginia. There was scarcely a family in the South that did not lose a son or brother or father.

As with any civil strife, the war was marked by excruciating ironies. Robert E. Lee became a legend in the Confederate army only after turning down an offer to command the entire Union force. Four of Lincoln’s own brothers-in-law fought on the Confederate side, and one was killed. The little town of Winchester, Virginia, changed hands seventy-two times during the war, and the state of Missouri sent thirty-nine regiments to fight in the siege of Vicksburg: seventeen to the Confederacy and twenty-two to the Union.

Between 1861 and 1865, Americans made war on each other and killed each other in great numbers — if only to become the kind of country that could no longer conceive of how that was possible. What began as a bitter dispute over Union and States’ Rights, ended as a struggle over the meaning of freedom in America. At Gettysburg in 1863, Abraham Lincoln said perhaps more than he knew. The war was about a “new birth of freedom.”

 

 

Intro to The Civil War mini-series (1990)

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17 Comments

  1. IMHO the Civil War should have never been fought. Slavery would have died a natural death. Southern Secession does seem legitimate – certainly other States had threatened to secede. Does “Consent of the governed” mean anything? Possibly we may have reunited amicably after the Southern States abolished slavery. The war was not a new birth of freedom, it was rather the death of Federalism and the birth of the oppressive national behemoth which daily erodes away our freedoms such that now even our religious freedom is in peril.

  2. Wrong on all counts Shawn.
    There is no evidence that the South was going to give up slavery.
    Secession, as Robert E. Lee noted, has not sanctioned by the Constitution and was mere revolution.
    Does “Consent of the governed” mean anything?”. In the context of this Republic I think it means at a minimum that this country would not be broken up without the consent of Congress in a bill not successfully vetoed by the President.
    “Possibly we may have reunited amicably after the Southern States abolished slavery.” More likely we would have fought over Western territories and the attempt by the Confederacy to forcibly expand in Mexico and the Caribbean, not to mention that escaping slaves would still have been seeking freedom in the North.
    “it was rather the death of Federalism and the birth of the oppressive national behemoth” Completely mistaken. The Federal government shrank to a miniscule size again after the Civil War. The Army went from over a million men to 25,000, for example, in just a very few years.

  3. Dear Don,
    I see we disagree. So you maintain that if the South had seceded unhindered they would still have slavery today?
    Western territories would not be free to choose which nation to join, slave or free?
    The shrinking of the National government did not diminish its war established dominion over the States;many historians have noted that we were no longer a United States but a States United; the baby behemoth may have taken time to grow but grow it did. It is ironic, and perhaps you will not have it, but the fratricidal war to end slavery has enslaved us all.
    I still like you anyhow. And please do not confuse me with a ‘Lost Cause’ advocate or a Stars and Bars fan; I am neither. All of my German and Irish forbears came to the US in the early 1900s.

  4. “Does ‘Consent of the governed’ mean anything?”

    Southern Unionists would have posed your question right back at you.

  5. “So you maintain that if the South had seceded unhindered they would still have slavery today?”

    Possibly, or some sort of indentured servant provisions whereby blacks would be slaves in all but name. The powers that be in the South had no appetite for ending slavery at all at the beginning of the Civil War. They would have had even less desire to do so, once the use of slaves in factories, already being done on a small scale prior to the Civil War, became more common in a victorious Confederacy dedicated, as the Vice President of the Confederacy stated, to the proposition that blacks were unequal to whites.

    “The shrinking of the National government did not diminish its war established dominion over the States; many historians have noted that we were no longer a United States but a States United; the baby behemoth may have taken time to grow but grow it did.”

    The Federal government did grow over time, but not due to the Civil War, but due to other factors. After the War it was still possible for the vast majority of Americans over their entire lives to have almost no involvement with the Federal government beyond the post office. Additionally the size of government globally has vastly increased since the Civil War, the growth of government in those nations obviously having nil to do with our Civil War, but rather a response to the same forces that led to the increase in power, scope and size of the Federal government in our country. The Civil War is really an insignificant factor in that process, which would have come even if a shot had never been fired against Fort Sumter.

  6. Don,
    You wrote-
    “They would have had even less desire to do so, once the use of slaves in factories, already being done on a small scale prior to the Civil War, became more common”
    Not just on a small scale. Fully 1/2 of Tredegar Iron Works workforce of 900 men, pre-war was “leased” slave labor. Planters made considerable extra money by renting out skilled and unskilled slaves, and nascent industrial enterprises were good customers.

    Shawn-
    You wrote-
    “perhaps you will not have it, but the fratricidal war to end slavery has enslaved us all.”
    That’s cant. Whatever evils we have in America today, whether afflicting individuals or institutions, it is NOTHING like the evil that slavery inflicted on black men, women and children before the Civil War. Fixing today’s evils can be effected by convincing your fellow citizens that your program is better than the evils, and resorting to ballots, not bullets.

  7. BPS – good luck with fixing today’s evils. I am more in tune with Bork’s view in “Slouching Toward Gomorrah”. We are just entering a Totalitarian stage in which a balanced government has been overturned by executive power and the enslaving power of the federal income tax. Our freedoms are slipping away or have you not noticed? Nowhere have I ever defended slavery. Neither was slavery all of one piece or nature or race in owner or owned. Nor was American slavery unique in any sense. I really do not require any sanctimonious lectures. I simply decry the state of our vanishing freedoms and our diminishing Church persecuted by its own clerics. That the Civil War instigated the diminishment of self-rule by the States is my contention with much sorrow. Conscription, income tax, suspension of habeus corpus and such things were preludes to today.IMHO. Unless the ‘Deus ex machina’ shows up real soon, I fear our children and grands will suffer through very rough times.

  8. Don,
    I will give it up in deference to you but allow a few points. I think you know very well that there were nascent movements in the South(VA) to pay slave holders to release their slaves. Many have asserted, perhaps persuasively, that technology in farming was making slavery obsolete. Many other countries outlawed slavery without a great war. Perhaps you have a little animus to our Southern States? Further, as a lawyer, you must know your projections of others future actions are not facts.

  9. Probably the biggest single factor in the growth of the federal government was passage of the XVIth Amendment. What the heck were we thinking!?!?

  10. and resorting to ballots

    Like laws against abortion, or same sex marriage – oh wait.

    Seriously though, the current ills of our country can not be entirely laid at the feet of the civil war (although as some have pointed out, it was not a “civil war” in a technical sense since the south was not seeking control over the entire country, it was a separatist war or war of independence). Although the strengthening of the central government was surely boosted by it, most consolidation of power seemed to occur in the early part of the 20th century. The depression and the World Wars seemed to play bigger roles, along with the 16th Amendment referenced above.

  11. Shawn-
    You wrote-
    “the enslaving power of the federal income tax”
    Last night in the Republican debate, several of the candidates called for ending the federal income tax, which could be done by legislation. How can you possibly compare this to American slavery, which could not only not be ended by legislation, but most southern states passed laws forbidding writing or speaking against it?

    “Our freedoms are slipping away or have you not noticed”
    I haven’t noticed anyone’s wives, husbands, children being put on the auction block and sold away from them, have you? I haven’t noticed people being forced to work for zero pay, have you? I haven’t notice people being put in chains or imprisoned without due process of law, have you?
    Don’t compare current problems in our political system to an institution which told an entire race of people that “You are not human in the same way that white people are”.

    “Nowhere have I ever defended slavery.”
    Perhaps not, but you’ve defended (you seem to have defended) a government based, as Alexander Stephens (it’s Vice President and chief political philosopher) said, “The great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man”.

    “Neither was slavery all of one piece or nature or race in owner or owned. Nor was American slavery unique in any sense.”
    That’s where you’re wrong. American slavery was all of a piece and unique in that it went against the founding principle of our nation, the idea, rooted in Christainity “That all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” When St. Paul sent Onesimus back to Philomon, he asked him to accept his slave back as a brother. But how does one enslave a brother? Because our founder knew this, they looked upon slavery as a temporary evil, and Washington freed his own slaves, in hopes that others would follow his example. The father of the idea of states rights, John Randolph of Roanoke, freed all 400+ of his slaves, gave them land in Ohio, and wrote in his will, “I’m sorry I owned a single one”. But by the time of the Civil War, slavery was being defended in the south, by theologians and politicians alike as “a positive good, for both slaves and slave owners”, and state laws made it HARDER for a slave owner to free his slaves. The fact that American Slavery was more benign that slavery elsewhere, that the 500,000 internationally imported blacks had grown by natural increase to 4 million by the time of the Civil War, makes it less likely that slavery would have been ended without conflict. Slaveholders lived close to their slaves, there were fewer absentee masters, and felt they “knew their people”. That paternalistic interest, and philosophic degredation from “necessary but temporary evil” to “positive good” precluded a Wilberforce-like influence for peaceful emancipation.

    ” I really do not require any sanctimonious lectures”
    I’m glad to hear it! Then perhaps you will refrain from comparing a dehumanizing system like American Slavery(which should only be compared to other dehumanizing ideas like abortion) to comparatively minor ills, correctible by good legislation or judicial appointments.

    c matt wrote-
    “biggest single factor in the growth of the federal government was passage of the XVIth Amendment”
    Agreed! This is the most overlooked hit that true states rights/federalism took, and I think the greatest weakening as a bulwark against central government power. It is wholly unsuprising that it was pushed by the democrats.

    “and resorting to ballots
    Like laws against abortion, or same sex marriage – oh wait.”
    Even those could be reversed, c matt, by electing a president and 60 senators who accept the natural law, and then appointing judges with records of doing the same.

  12. BPS – you are like a frog in a pot of water – you entertain a chimerical belief in your own freedom – apparently you were never jerked out of a good paying job, put in a uniform and sent half way round the world to a war. American slavery was nothing special and all through history in most nations slavery was commonplace and many races were enslaved. Many nations, as I repeat, eliminated slavery without a great civil war and its attendant loss of life as well as liberty to the States. It is my opinion the South would have inevitably done the same but you simply want to attack me as a racist. If the South had liberated her own slaves it is further possible that carpetbagging and its aftereffects of Jim Crow may not have oppressed the black community for the next 100+ years. I would like to tell you what I think of you and your condescending attitude and your intolerance for ideas other than your own but discretion bids me forbear your boorish behavior.

  13. Shawn-
    You wrote-
    “you entertain a chimerical belief in your own freedom”
    Until I don’t have the “power to do what I ought”, I’m certainly a free man. I have more reason to believe I’m free than you to believe you’re a slave. It’s true, I’ve never been drafted (if you have, thank you for your service to our country) but if I ever was, as two of my brothers were, I would have served. But we don’t currently have the draft in this country. Are we more or less free without it?

    “American slavery was nothing special”
    American slavery WAS special, because America is special. Founded on the idea that all men are equal in the eyes of the law and are endowed with rights by their Creator (not on racist principles, as Bernie Sanders thinks), some of its people had to turn themselves inside out trying to reason black people out of that preposition by saying “These are not men”. No other nation HAD to do that, because NO other nation embraced that idea so fully. The founders were so ashamed of slavery that they could not mention the word in the Constitution. The confederates not only mentioned the word, but specified “negro slavery” as an area untouchable by state or national law.

    “Many nations, as I repeat, eliminated slavery without a great civil war and its attendant loss of life as well as liberty to the States. It is my opinion the South would have inevitably done the same”
    Please explain how that would have happened when it’s constitution prohibited it from touching slavery, it’s culture and religious life applauded slavery as “good”, and it’s poor whites could point to it as the only level to which it could NOT sink below? Muslim culture shares most of those points and slavery exists there to this very day.

    “you simply want to attack me as a racist”
    Please point to one statement I’ve made attacking you as racist?! If I were to say anything about you it would be that you tend to exaggerate and take criticism of your ideas as personal attacks.

  14. “American slavery WAS special, because America is special. Founded on the idea that all men are equal in the eyes of the law and are endowed with rights by their Creator (not on racist principles, as Bernie Sanders thinks), some of its people had to turn themselves inside out trying to reason black people out of that preposition by saying “These are not men”. No other nation HAD to do that, because NO other nation embraced that idea so fully. The founders were so ashamed of slavery that they could not mention the word in the Constitution. The confederates not only mentioned the word, but specified “negro slavery” as an area untouchable by state or national law.”
    BPS: Thank you for your observant comment..
    A white women who was a teacher taught Frederick Douglass how to read and write at the time when doing so was a capital death penalty crime. The laws in the South would put to death any person who acknowledged the personhood of the black man. The white man was enslaved by slavery.

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